Cascioferro, Vito (1862-1943)

Born Bisacquino, Sicily, 1862.

Died Pozzuoli, Italy, c1943.

Cascio Ferro was an influential Mafia leader on both sides of the Atlantic. It appears that much of the growth and cooperation of the early American Mafia was due to his conscious effort. A political radical, as a young man he embraced leftist causes, including the rise of labor and the anarchist philosophy.

Cascio Ferro was raised in the interior of western Sicily and became well known in the communities of Bisacquino, in Palermo province, and Burgio and Bivona, in Agrigento province (all south of Corleone). He spent several years in New York and New Orleans before returning home. His influence over Mafiosi in the New World added to his underworld prestige in Sicily. He kept in close touch with Mafiosi in both American cities through the 1900s and apparently worked with the transplanted criminals on a counterfeiting racket.

His 1901 voyage to New York was reportedly triggered by increased attention to his activities by the Italian police. When in New York, he reportedly stayed with members of the Morello-Lupo Mob. The group's leader, Giuseppe Morello, had been a top lieutenant in the Mafia of Corleone, Sicily, before fleeing to the U.S. in the early 1890s to escape prosecution for murders and forgery. During Cascio Ferro's visits, he is credited with helping American mobsters refine their practices for extorting protection money from businesses. According to legend, Cascio Ferro showed the gangs they could maximize profits by extorting sums that were not financially damaging to the businesses - a practice called "wetting the beak."

He is believed to have visited Sophia Knieland Bresci at her New Jersey home. She was the widow of Gaetano Bresci, the anarchist assassin who took the life of Italy's King Umberto I before apparently committing suicide in an Italian prison.

On May 21, 1902, Cascio Ferro was arrested along with several other members of a coin counterfeiting gang, in which Salvatore and Stella Frauto were prominent members. The other suspects were convicted and sent to prison, but Cascio Ferro escaped prosecution. Police considered him a suspect in the New York City "Barrel Murder" of Benedetto Madonia in 1903, but Cascio Ferro avoided arrest in that matter by traveling to New Orleans. By 1904, he had returned to Sicily.

He is thought to have organized and participated in the assassination of Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino of the New York Police during Petrosino's official visit to Sicily in 1909. Legend says Cascio Ferro excused himself from a dinner party at the home of a Sicilian government official, borrowed his host's vehicle and went to deliver the coup de grace shot to the head of Petrosino. Then, he returned to complete his friendly visit with the official. Though arrested in connection with the slaying of Petrosino, Cascio Ferro's distant alibi prevented authorities from prosecuting him.

Police arrested Cascio Ferro during a round up of underworld characters during the First World War, but again they could not make charges stick. The underworld leader continued to grow in strength and influence. He is said to have assembled a fleet of merchant vessels that were employed in the transport of stolen cattle from Sicily to the coast of North Africa and to have corrupted politicians and police officials to provide a protective screen for his various criminal endeavors.

The authorities believed early in 1925 that Cascio Ferro was responsible for ordering the murders of two uncooperative extortion targets, Francesco Falconieri and Gioacchino Lo Voi. The 63-year-old Cascio Ferro was charged with ordering the murders, and 40-year-old Vito Campegna of Prizzi was charged with carrying out the orders. Cascio Ferro managed to arrange a release on bail, and the murder charges were briefly forgotten.

With Benito Mussolini's Fascists taking power in Italy, Cascio Ferro faced his most determined and ruthless enemy. The Mussolini government late in 1925 sent Cesari Mori to Sicily to serve as prefect of Palermo, a police position with extraordinary authority. Cascio Ferro was again arrested on the duel murder charges in the spring of 1926. He was held for several years before being brought to trial in 1930 - just as the Castellammarese War was breaking out in the U.S. Mafia. He was convicted in July and sentenced to spend nine years in prison solitary confinement. The Fascist government may have wanted him behind bars as much for his leftist political leanings as for his prominence in the Mafia underworld, and appears to have had no plans ever to release him. His prison sentence took him first to Ucciardone and then to Portolongone before a transfer to Pozzuoli, where he would spend the rest of his life.

The date of his death is generally given as 1945, but author Arrigo Petacco ("Joe Petrosino," 1974) found evidence of Cascio Ferro's demise in summer of 1943. Petacco said the Mafia leader was left behind in his cell when other inmates of Pozzuoli prison were evacuated in advance of the Allied invasion. The author says Cascio Ferro died of thirst. Other sources claim he was killed as a result of Allied bombing.

Related Links: